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O’Connell: Utes Have Slight Edge Over Ducks In Pac-12 Title Game

Jake Hanson #55 of the Oregon Ducks prepares to snap the ball against the Utah Utes at Autzen Stadium on October 28, 2017 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utes are headed to a Pac-12 Championship game for the second straight year.

Hopes are high here in Salt Lake City that the results will be different this time around. The whole college football world also hopes that the complexion of the game will be quite different than last year’s near-scoreless battle with the Washington Huskies…

Different year. Different opponent. And something just different about this Utah team. The Utes will head to Santa Clara on a short week as favorites to win. Some of the luster has come off of those shiny Duck helmets after a loss to Arizona State and a closer-than-expected matchup in the Civil War game against Oregon State. Still, the Oregon Ducks are a very good football team that may present some tough matchups for Kyle Whittingham’s Utes. So let’s look at the matchups.

We’ll start with the big one. (literally and figuratively)

UTAH D-LINE vs OREGON O-LINE

You’ll hear every pundit in the country tell you that the game will be decided here. They are probably right. This is a matchup of two of the nation’s elite position groups. It’s Tyson-Holyfield without the biting (we hope there is no biting), Jedi vs Sith; the football embodiment of those hypothetical “who would win a fight, a silverback gorilla or a grizzly bear?” debates we’ve all had at some point. From a personnel standpoint, you really have to split hairs to find an advantage. Warmack and Lemieux will have their hands full with Leki and Penisini, Mika Tafua will probably have to play near his best to have an advantage over Throckmorton, and the center, Jake Hanson will need to be mentally sharp to identify Morgan Scalley’s changing fronts and disguised pressures. The premier matchup is worth the price of admission alone. Bradlee Anae, a single sack away from setting the all-time record at the University of Utah vs. Penei Sewell, underclassman Outland Trophy finalist and perhaps the best overall player in the Pac-12 conference. Sewell is the one who will eventually be a top-5 NFL draft pick and is nationally recognized as one of the best at his position, so on paper, I suppose it’s advantage Oregon. Anae came back to school for this game. He sacrificed a year of NFL pay (probably as a late draft pick or free-agent signee, mind you) for this game. He’s worked for four years to see his name at the top of a long list of elite Utah pass rushers. So if the advantage in this one-on-one goes to the Ducks, it’s not much of a margin. The stats tell us that Utah has the best rushing defense in the country. Oregon’s O-Line sports the second-best “stuff” rate of any Power-5 school (behind Clemson). Statistically, the Ducks O-line is better in run blocking than they are in pass protection, but getting to Herbert won’t be easy. It’s crucial that whoever gets a hand on the Oregon QB gets him down because Cristobal is capable of making in-game adjustments to eliminate repetitive pressure. The Utes can’t miss opportunities for sacks. Lastly, the best D-Line Oregon has faced so far this season was all the way back in week one, when the Derrick Brown, Big-Kat Bryant, and company held the Ducks rushing attack to less than 100 yards and sacked Justin Herbert three times. That’s probably the closes comparison we have in terms of what to expect from this matchup. A lot has changed in the 13 weeks since that Oregon-Auburn game, but Auburn won the battle up front in that game, and Utah is just as talented up front as Auburn is.

ADVANTAGE– UTES by the slimmest of margins.

OREGON PASSING GAME vs UTAH PASS DEFENSE

Make no mistake, Justin Herbert is the best QB that Utah will face this year. He hasn’t been the Heisman-caliber gunslinger that some folks expected in Eugene, and you could make the argument that

he has choked in some big moments (final drive vs Auburn, two 4th quarter interceptions in the loss to ASU) but he is also a big reason why Oregon is regarded as a top-15 team. His size makes him hard to bring down for pass-rushers, and he keeps his eyes downfield when under pressure. Any real deficiency in Oregon’s passing attack comes as a result of injuries. Herbert has never had a full complement of healthy receivers this season, and with Breeland and Micah Pittman out, it’s now about Johnny and Juwann Johnson, with a complement of Jaylon Redd. The important thing for Utah fans is that this WR corps is not like USC’s. Juwan Johnson is big, but he’s not an elite man-coverage destroyer like Michael Pittman Jr was. The wildcard here is Jaylon Johnson’s health. He was banged up at the end of the Colorado game and has less than a week to get right. That could be a huge problem for Utah. As Herbert will identify and attack a backup corner.

ADVANTAGE– UTES if Jaylon is healthy. Push if he isn’t.

OREGON RUN GAME VS UTAH RUSH D

CJ Verdell is a good back. Travis Dye is good but fumbles too much. Habibi-Likio is also… good. If you combined a GREAT back with this Oregon Offensive Line, the story here might be different. Utah wins this matchup against everyone in the country (probably a push with Ohio State because Dobbins is great)

ADVANTAGE– UTES

UTAH PASSING GAME VS OREGON PASSING D

Tyler Huntley (#HuntleyforHeisman) is playing as well as any QB in the country right now. While the Utah offensive scheme might not lend itself to him racking up huge numbers, he is showing true mastery of his role in the position as a senior. He makes excellent decisions with the football and should be given first-team All-Pac 12 honors. Still, the one area Utah still needs to catch up with the rest of the conference is in receiving talent. The Utes are fine, and may just have an all-conference tight end emerging, but Troy Dye might be the only LB in the conference athletic enough to cover Brandt Kuithe. Perhaps Oregon’s best surprise this year has been the performance of their defensive backfield. The Ducks sport the Pac-12’s third-best passing defense, but more importantly, they lead the conference in interceptions and sacks. The only weakness they’ve shown is against ASU’s double-moves, but Andy Avalos should have corrected that with his boys by now.

ADVANTAGE– DUCKS

UTAH RUN GAME VS OREGON RUN DEFENSE

The Utah offensive line is not elite, but Zack Moss is. The senior RB erases missed blocks and mistakes every game. I imagine Kyle Whittingham watching highlights of his physical-but-intelligent running style with happy tears running down his face. Oregon will likely try to mimic some of what Colorado did early to stymie the Utah run game, but with Moss and this O-Block, it’s not a matter of if, just a question of when the rushing attack will start to roll. The Ducks have the second-best rush defense in the Pac-12, holding opponents to just over 100 yards per game. Unfortunately for them, Utah is good for 200+ per game on the ground, top in the conference and among the top-25 in the country.

ADVANTAGE– UTES

OREGON D-LINE vs UTAH O-LINE

Oregon doesn’t get a lot of love for its defensive line this year, partially because Utah’s dominant front is the bigger story. But Jordon Scott is a big ol’ roast beef in the middle of that Duck defense and freshman phenom Kayvon Thibodeaux has rounded into a late-season form consistent with his lofty recruiting status. Utah’s Offensive line has been good, even without a singularly dominant talent in the group. I am very curious to see how All-Pac-12 selection treats Darrin Paulo and Orlando Umana in particular. Utah’s big boys are facing the top pass-rushing team in the Pac-12 Conference in Santa Clara, and the Ducks are stout against the run too. (although I give the bulk of the credit for that to their linebacking corps, led by Troy Dye) Statistically, the Utes OL is actually shockingly bad in 3rd or 4th and short situations (113th in the country!) and in pass protection on 1st and 2nd down (76th). While these analytics certainly don’t tell the whole story about a pretty good group, it’s worth looking at.

ADVANTAGE– DUCKS

KICKING GAME

Utah fans have had to come to grips with the fact that their traditionally-elite punting and kicking games have been more of a question mark this season. A big part of that is increased offensive efficiency and more effective red-zone execution, so it’s a problem we can all live with. I don’t think this Pac-12 Championship game comes down to a battle of field position, but if it does, Oregon’s slight edge in punting makes them the favorite. I don’t think it will come down to a field goal either, but if that happens, Utah enjoys a slight edge having attempted more kicks and making a higher percentage. The Ducks do enjoy a significant advantage in both punt and kick return average, courtesy of Mykael Wright and Jevon Holland. Coverage teams will have to be at their best.

ADVANTAGE– DUCKS

That’s 4-3 Utes by my advanced metrics… Utes by 17. See you in Santa Clara!